TAMPA — Rare is the occasion when an NFL team signs a player to a multimillion-dollar contract and feels as if it got a bargain.
Then again, can you really put a price on the safety of your franchise quarterback?
The 11th-hour, $48 million deal the Bucs struck with left tackle Donald Penn on the first day of training camp now looks like a no-brainer given Penn's impenetrable protection of Josh Freeman this season.
But Penn didn't just settle for being one of the best pass protectors in the NFL, a title his coaches and teammates insist he deserves. Instead, Penn added another dimension, making a determined effort to become a more aggressive run blocker and a leader by example.
The driving force behind it all? Mostly pride, but also fear of disappointing those who believe in him most.
"That's a big thing with me," Penn said. "I have a big ego. I don't want anybody — not (general manager) Mark Dominik, the Glazers, a fan, anybody — to say, 'Man, we shouldn't have given this guy all that money.' That's one of my biggest pet peeves. I don't ever want that to happen."
Penn, 27, has been one of the most consistent tackles in the NFL this season. And he has been durable, starting 56 consecutive games while the rest of the Bucs' offensive line is in tatters because of injuries, leaving him as its only original starter.
The stats say Penn has allowed three sacks, but NFL custom credits sacks to the lineman closest to the takedown. Of those three sacks, none were recorded by the defender he was assigned to block. They were the product of blitzes or scenarios where Penn tried to help another lineman. In each of the past three seasons, Penn has been credited with eight sacks against him.
"No one has just beaten me off the ball and gotten a sack on me this season," said Penn, an undrafted free agent out of Utah State in 2006.
That's not braggadocio. It is, to an extent, relief. Penn holds himself to lofty standards, like perfection. After an ugly contract standoff that lasted the entire offseason, Penn knew his play would be scrutinized intensely.
"He got his contract," coach Raheem Morris said, "and he's outperforming it."
"What's happening is, now we put him out on the field, and if all he does is dominate the left defensive end, it's almost like (we think), 'Hey, you should be doing more,' " Morris added. "So we've started expecting more and raised the expectations. So, now he's become nasty. … We're starting to see fire. We're starting to see stuff in the running game. We're starting to see him smash people down the field on screens. He's playing with a renewed energy."
Want proof? Ask the best pass rushers in the game.
Against the Bucs, Steelers linebacker James Harrison had three tackles and none of his 10 sacks on the season. Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who has nine sacks, had none in two meetings with the Bucs and totaled five tackles in the two games. And the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, who switches between right and left sides and has nine sacks this season, had five tackles but no sacks against the Bucs. All three players are among the league's top 10 in sacks.
Penn's pass protection has always been a strength, his nimble feet impressive for a man of his size (6 feet 5, 305 pounds). That size has long been an issue, however. Penn and the team don't agree on the extent of his weight gain last season, but it was substantial and was a major concern for the club. It became one of the major sticking points with giving Penn a new contract.
But Penn has squashed the concerns, living up to the weight clauses in his contract.
"You knew he was going to take it seriously when he went out and … (hired) people to cook for him," Morris said. "Then he's goes and gets in the weight room, and he's wearing a plastic bag when it's like 185 degrees outside. Luckily for us, he didn't go the other way. There's always that fear about paying a guy."
Yes, the Bucs did pay Penn handsomely. But aside from having arguably his best season, he said there's another reason the Bucs should be satisfied with the deal.
"I know this," Penn said, laughing. "They're happy they signed me this year, because if I would have hit free agency after this season, it might have been a whole different story."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.